By Dr. Alex Sternberg
If you think that Itamar Ben Gvir has radical ideas, wait until you meet his teacher, Baruch Marzel. Marzel is a direct student of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, who was assassinated in 1990. Marzel lives in the holy city of Hebron and has been keeping the flame alive for those who believe in settling every inch of the ancient Land of Israel.
I was recently invited by Marzel to visit him to discuss Kahanism, the legacy of the late Rabbi Kahane.
Hebron is not a major destination on any organized tourist itinerary. Most U.S. visitors are steered toward the safe, traditional Israeli destinations. When someone insists on visiting the holy city, tour groups that provide bulletproof buses with an armed escort are recommended.
My family and I have been visiting Hebron on each of our annual Israel trips. My son Yonatan was 10 on our first trip, so I yielded to a mother’s misgivings, and we also opted for the bulletproof bus. On our more than half a dozen trips, however, there were never any incidents.
On a recent trip, an old friend, Joe, offered to drive me.
We did not have a bulletproof car, and I did not see any evidence of weapons. But in the interest of total disclosure, I admit that I did not frisk him or his wife, Joy, who accompanied us.
Joe knows his way around Israeli roads and navigates to most places without Waze.
Hebron is very special for me and has been since I was 13 years old. Chayei Sarah, the portion of the Torah that describes Abraham buying the Cave of Machpeilah to bury Sarah Imeinu, is my bar mitzvah parashah. The Torah describes the purchase and refers to Hebron also as Kiryat Arba. A little later the Torah describes the death of Avraham Avinu and describes his burial by his two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael. We also learn that there will be everlasting enmity between the descendants of Yitzchak and Yishmael. How true that is!
Despite such hostility, Hebron has always had a Jewish presence. In 1929, during one of the frequent Arab riots, 67 yeshiva students of Hebron were massacred. The British evacuated the rest of the Jews and only after Israel recaptured the troubled city in 1967 did the Jews come back. The victory of the Six Day War also allowed, for the first time, Jews to pray openly at Me’arat HaMachpeilah.
Not everyone welcomed the Jews back, however. In fact, the Arabs vehemently opposed any Jewish presence as they demanded a “do over” to regain the territory lost in their disastrous and humiliating loss. Not surprisingly, the U.S. exerted pressure on Israel to keep previously Jordanian areas Judenfrei. But even the Israeli government had no sympathy to control areas not deemed strategically important.
The Jews who came back were a special breed. Dedicated to settle the areas recaptured by Israel, they lived in tents and trailers often without electricity and running water. They struggled to maintain their community as they moved back to the previously Jewish areas they were forced to leave behind. Just over a thousand Jews succeeded to live once again in the ancient city of their ancestors. Today, less than 2,000 Jews are living among 200,000 hostile, bloodthirsty Arabs. Those who live in Hebron itself are not only pitted against Arabs but at times against the Israeli government as well.
Baruch Marzel is one of the main leaders of the movement to settle Hebron. A student of Kahane since the tender age of 13, he has been a vocal advocate of settling the entire Land of Israel. His advocacy has angered the government of Israel and he has been arrested over 100 times.
Marzel lives in Tel Rumeida in “downtown Hebron.” Upon our arrival, he invited us into his modest apartment and offered us a cup of hot coffee. I was curious about what made Marzel tick as we settled down to speak.
Marzel is intense and animated when talking politics. Having lived there for almost 30 years, he has struggled for everything, including permission to install an air conditioner.
“Regardless of which government leads Israel, international pressure is immense to curtail the growth of the Jewish community,” he explained to me. And then there is constant tension with neighbors. The tension often erupts into open violence, leading to casualties on both sides. Daily activities such as grocery shopping are done with weapons at the ready under the ever-watchful eyes of the IDF soldiers stationed in the Hebron garrison.
“Jews lived here for centuries in harmony with their Arab neighbors,” he explained. “Then, the 1929 massacre happened, and we were driven out. Now we are back. Hebron is part of our ancient land and it belongs to us no matter what anyone says.” Baruch is obviously a true believer.
The dispute between the Arabs and the Jews of Hebron is the story of Israel against the Arabs. Each side demands that the other go.
“The Arabs had to learn that Jews are not going anywhere,” he continued. “Once they understood that, we were able to arrive at a compromise to share the Me’arah. There is still plenty of tension, but we share.”
“How can 1,000 or so Jews maintain a viable community among 200,000 hostile Arabs?” I asked him.
“It’s not good,” he explained. “In the long run, the Arabs will have to go,” he stated unequivocally. “We fight for every inch as they are unwilling to recognize our right to be here.” “Sharing the Me’arah was a struggle, and even now, after many years, it’s a constant battle. Look at what’s happening on the Temple Mount.”
His colleague from the Kach days, Itamar ben Gvir, is a constant, albeit, controversial, visitor to Har HaBayit in order to maintain the Jewish connection.
But in conversation Baruch immediately draws a line between himself and his old student.
“Ben Gvir has become fluid in his convictions, but I am entrenched. No political pressure or ambition drives my perspectives. For me,” he stated categorically, “it’s either theirs or ours!”
Anyone who has read the writings of Meir Kahane or has seen any of his videos (or traveled with him, as I have) has heard this narrative before. Marzel is a true “chassid.” He explains to visitors that the solution is to get the Arabs to leave “voluntarily.”
And just how can that be accomplished?
“You pay them money to relocate,” he answers. He does not advocate forcible expulsion. “Just pay them to leave, and they will leave.”
While Marzel is certainly an extremist, he doesn’t advocate wanton murder. Discussing the Baruch Goldstein murders in Me’arat HaMachpeilah, Marzel declares that “although I understood what drove him to do such a bizarre and desperate act, still, I did not condone it.”
Goldstein is buried just up the hill in the Rabbi Meir Kahane Park in Kiryat Arba. Recently, residents put up a memorial, but the Israeli government bulldozed it. Even visiting the grave has to be done discreetly.
During our conversation, Marzel tried to sum up his many years of activism in the few hours we had.
“The Arabs do not want peace,” he went on. “They show it with their constant incitement to violence. They encourage terrorists to murder Israelis by paying a stipend based on an escalating scale. More money for larger acts of terror. How can you trust someone who pays to murder you?”
He is incensed by Arab narratives denying the connection of Jews to the Holy Land. “They even deny that there was a Beit HaMikdash on the Temple Mount,” he marvels.
Marzel has inflexible convictions. “If one believes in the Torah,” he explained, “there can be no compromise. The land was given to the Jews by G-d. Case closed!” he declares.
Time seemed to fly as we talked. After three hours, though, it was time for Minchah/Ma’ariv. We left his apartment and walked the short distance to the steps leading up to the Me’arah. After a warm discussion with the soldiers at the metal detectors, we walked up and inside. Baruch greeted his fellow Hebronites and shook hands with the few visitors he saw. I noticed that we were standing in the Yaakov Avinu Ohel. On Baruch’s signal Minchah began. As I looked around, I understood that most of the locals davened at the Me’arah daily. As for the few visitors and me, we were visibly moved to be there.
With davening over, I slowly took my leave of Baruch, realizing that a special day was drawing to a close. He walked us to the car as I thanked him for his work. I knew that if not for him and the others, no Jew would be allowed to pay our respects by davening at the kever of our ancestors.
Dr. Alex Sternberg is the author of “Recipes from Auschwitz—The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight.”